It's hard to think of an issue that inspires more passion in ag right now than carbon farming. On one side, we've got carbon companies promising to line our pockets with carbon credits. On the other, the folks who claim the science just isn't there yet.
In the middle is us: the farmer. Who, from the volume of media attention being levelled at this 'newfangled' farming practice, is suffering a bit of an image problem. The implication is that we're flat-footed on carbon. Scrambling for solutions.
We know the truth is different: that every grain grower who's using variable rate (VR) fertiliser or liming strategies is actually already 'carbon farming' - actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production. We just haven't put that label on it.
But we also know that that last statement is a bit cute - and it probably won't hold water when the regulators, banks, insurers, and markets eventually demand proof that we're either reducing our carbon emissions year-on-year, or actively sequestering it. Maybe they'll want to see both.
So, the question we are all grappling with is: what's our next step?
The route each of us take to 'carbon-friendly,' 'carbon neutral,' 'Net Zero' (or whatever future
iteration / lingo it takes) will invariably differ. Because soils aren't created equal. Some lend themselves to big investments in big, whole-of-farm carbon projects which (as the market matures) could deliver big returns. Like the heavy black soils which lap up carbon - and could have their owners similarly lapping up the carbon credits.
Some soil types don't sequester much carbon at all, making big carbon projects a less secure investment.
For the huge chunks of Australian soils that sit somewhere in between, diagnostic VR can help enhance the parameters for carbon sequestration: nitrogen, pH, and soil moisture settings, as a minimum.
Regardless of what our carbon journey looks like, it must start with soil sampling. Knowing our carbon potential is a bit like knowing our borrowing capacity. We wouldn't make big capital investments without first looking at how much we had to spend, and weighing up the return on investment. Soil carbon should be the same.
If you've got - or can use VR to create - the right conditions for sequestration, your return might come in tradable credits. For grain growers, carbon might be a more passive investment. The return takes time, coming back not as credits but as improved soil organic matter, reduced input costs, and better yield. It's productivity and sustainability going hand in hand - where normal farming practices can deliver real carbon impact at scale.
We've spent a decade building Precision Agriculture: the company, to advance precision agriculture: the discipline. Our core business is in delivering insights and variable rate solutions for farmers. Carbon isn't what we set out to do, but it isn't much of a pivot.
Take the soil sample. Diagnose and treat the constraint. Optimise production. Reduce inputs. And the byproduct of all of that? Deliver carbon impact at scale.
I know farmers are drowning in data. I certainly am, as I toil away at optimising water use, crop yield etc. But there's only so many spreadsheets you can cram into the ute glovebox. And what good are we achieving anyway, if the answers don't just leap off the page?
'Soli' is our attempt at fixing the problem. Powering better management of nutrients, soil conditioning, water, disease, seeding, trials, and carbon - it's a low-touch, high-impact platform that helps growers turn data and soil sampling results into bespoke prescriptions that optimise production. Or if you want, carbon.
It isn't important that most grain growers - me included - never set out to become 'carbon farmers.' We embarked on VR to simply help us become more efficient. A happy consequence is we also produce less GHG per unit of production. What matters more is that now, we have a good carbon story to tell - and one day, people key to our business will demand to hear it.
And there's no time like the present to start writing that first chapter.
- Warwick Read is a grain grower from Victoria's Western Districts. He is the chairman of Precision Agriculture.